Perhaps this freemium installment in the Real Racing series is simply a sign of the times and shifting attitudes towards free-to-play gaming. Perhaps so many people obtained the previous two games by illicit means that Firemonkey and EA simply felt this was the only sensible option - we all know what happened to Dead Trigger after all.
But maybe - just maybe - they took a look at the news that CSR Racing publisher NaturalMotion was making $12million dollars in revenue each month from its title and thought: "You know what? We'll have some of that action." Have no doubt that there is much to be said about the monetization of this highly anticipated game, and we'll be discussing this important topic in-depth later on in the review, but for now let's talk about the game itself.
It starts of course with the cars and there are 47 in this new title, from the rock-steady and reliable Ford Focuses of the world, all the way up to the supercars of every racing fan's dreams from manufacturers like Porsche and Koenigsegg. Each one is impressively rendered, and the game isn't shy about giving each one its own cinematic moment in the sun in order to gently mask brief loading transitions.
A little car porn is of course what every Real Racing fan expects from the franchise, and there's a generous number of control schemes for you to enjoy as you tackle the game's many tracks. Novice racers will likely appreciate the tilt system, with braking and acceleration largely controlled by the - tweakable - assist system. If you prefer a virtual wheel combined with more direct speed control, there are settings for that too. The more control you take of the vehicle, the better your performances, so you're encouraged to step outside of your comfort zone and ask a little more of yourself as your confidence grows.
That necessity to improve your skills nestles alongside Firemonkey's Time Shifted Multiplayer system, which forges your AI opponents out of racing data accumulated from other online competitors. Should you play the game offline, your own recent performances are uploaded to the publisher's servers when you next connect. In this way, the game attempts to build a constantly evolving pool of competitors from which to craft your experience. In principle it's a fine idea, although we did find that it could lead to some extremely erratic difficulty levels when it came to multiple attempts at the same challenge.
There are a huge number of those challenges to get stuck into though, and they serves to deliver an impressive amount of freshness to the game. Whether taking part in elimination races where you battle to be ahead of the last racer every 20 seconds, competing in sun-drenched races around the Spa Francorchamps circuit, or sharpening your gear-shifting reflexes in drag-racing rounds, the sheer amount of gaming to be had from the 900-plus events represents a staggering evolution for mobile gaming.
So that's the game, and it's without question a magnificent one when it comes to the actual gameplay. The tracks, the cars, the variety of racing, and the pristine graphics which once again lead the way for mobile and tablet gaming, all impress. But - and you've probably seen this coming - we need to talk about currency.
There are two different types of coins at play in this freemium title. The first, R$, is earned through gameplay or purchased from the App Store, and it's essential for purchasing new cars, as well as repairing and upgrading your chosen vehicle. Your oil meter, for example, runs down after a handful of races and you'll need to spend some money to top it up, as well as wait for the job to be completed. Four other performance-debilitating vehicle components degrade over time too, and repair jobs can't be run simultaneously, only queued. Combine this with performance degradation caused by self-inflicted or AI vehicle damage, and it's entirely possible to find yourself locked out of the game for hours at a time.
More rarely awarded, and pricier in the in-app purchase store, is the Gold currency. There are two significant uses of Gold. Firstly, it can be spent to immediately end those agonizing timers, and the longer the wait, the more you'll have to spend out of the meager pot of 20 you're awarded at the start of the game. Secondly, they can be used to unlock new tracks earlier and purchase premium cars. All in all, it's an exasperating way of roadblocking enjoyment of the game, and at the most extreme end of the scale you'll need approximately $160 in spare change floating around to pick up the Koenigesegg Agrera R ($80 if you buy Gold in bulk). Elsewhere, high tier vehicle upgrades can only be gained through Gold, rather than the usual R$ you earn from races.
These waiting times quite frankly kill a potential masterpiece of mobile gaming. Perhaps most frustrating of all is that Real Racing 3, compared to the most polished timer-based games of recent months, does such an awful job of breaking the bad news to you. It's perplexing that the game denies you so many of the charms that it needs to put on show in order to convince you to invest - heavily - in the title, and instead forces you to put the game down and forget about it very early on.
To test our hypothesis that these waiting times would lock specific cars out of the game, rather than shutting you out of play entirely, our first priority was to grind out enough game cash to purchase an alternative vehicle. Suffice to say you can switch to a new car while another one is being repaired, but it still feels like a cynical attempt to deny you use of your most prized possession - one that you've likely spent considerable money and effort upgrading.
Can we play devil's advocate with this freemium system and make a virtue out of it? Perhaps. Unlike most racing games, where the temptation to restart a botched attempt halfway through can be overpowering, this system encourages you to see every last event out - that money's far too precious to waste. Likewise, the damage system forces you to think carefully about reckless competitiveness. It's hard to ignore the nagging feeling though that these arguments represent extreme justification-after-the-fact.
Whether the exact implementation of Real Racing 3's show-stopping freemium model is a matter of greed or inexperience, we can't know - but we want to believe the latter. We also want to believe that between now and the game's global release on February 28th, greater consideration will be given to the long-term supporters of the series, and that a timer-free premium edition of the game will be released alongside this current incarnation. If that happens, we'll revisit our opinion of Real Racing 3 - and give it the accolades it would otherwise unquestionably deserve.
Real Racing 3 is not currently available to download from the US App Store. We'll add a link to this review when the game is released later on this month.
What's Hot:The finest racing experience on mobiles and tablets, with an astonishing amount of content, cars and racing variety.
What's Not:The freemium system that roadblocks gameplay is astonishingly clumsy and aggressive. That it's not entirely game-breaking is its only saving grace.